Me father left me an acre o’ land,
Ee, I and I-over,
Me father left me an acre o’ land,
A bunch o’ green nettles and clover.
I ploughed it out wi’ a drove o’ cats,
I harrowed it out wi’ me finger nails,
I sowed it all over with an egg-shell
I cut it down wi’ me pocket-knife,
I threshed it out with a leg of a louse,
I fied it out with a wing of a flee, (fly)(fied = winnowed)
I took it to mill on a mouse’s back,
Poor beggar came back with a broken back,
This text is a later revision. The recording is the first one made. Mrs Grinsdale had confused some of the stanzas in her first recording and in stanza 8 had sung ‘market’ instead of the correctly remembered word ‘mill’.
This is a traditional song
As popular among East Riding farming communities as Mutton Pie (TYG30), this song, on the face of it, is a sarcastic comment on the small amount of land a farmer’s son inherited. However, it actually evolved from an ancient riddle ballad known among ballad scholars as The Elfin Knight (Child 2, Roud 12) and known worldwide nowadays as Scarborough Fair.
In The Elfin Knight the knight blows his magic horn which is heard by a maiden who is enchanted and wishes the knight in her arms, upon which he arrives at her bedside. He then offers to marry her if she can make him a shirt under impossible circumstances. In time-honoured tradition the only way to counter this is to set the setter an equally or more impossible task, so she asks him to plough her an acre of land under the sea under equally impossible conditions. The knight defeated then says he has a wife and children already and she having broken the spell counters this with ‘Then I’ll keep my maidenhead.’
Scarborough Fair is a reduced version of this, cut back to only the description of the two tasks, and An Acre of Land has been reduced even further to just the tasks set by the girl and has been switched from second person to first person. Since it has lost its ancestral meaning and taken on another identity completely it is quite rightly treated today as a separate song. Some time in the early nineteenth century, in the hands of farming communities, the song was expanded to include all of the processes in grain production, from ploughing right through to taking the grain to the mill, all done in miniature.
The song is well-known throughout England. The earliest versions I have seen are both dated 1853, one in Halliwell’s The Nursery Rhymes of England, 6th edition, and the other in Notes and Queries, First Series, Volume 7, p8.
We give here three different versions with different tunes and refrains, all three from singers who lived a few doors away from each other. We could easily have given twenty more complete versions from the East Riding. Although different tunes are used the most common tune by far is Brighton Camp. John Hodson and Lesley Smith were farm labourers and lived all of their lives on the Plain of Holderness, whereas Ethel Grinsdale was brought up on Wolds farms about twenty miles away, where farming methods were of necessity very different affairs. Ethel and John were related by marriage, but until we came knocking on their doors in the 70s, neither knew of the other’s song repertoire. In between our first recording sessions and subsequent ones they began swapping songs and stanzas so that in later sessions we would get stanzas in songs that they had added from the other’s repertoire.
The original recordings of Versions 1,2 and 3 of this song and many others are deposited in the British Library Sound archive at:-
C1009/7 C63 [access copy 1CDR0009332 BD19]
C1009/8 C39 [access copy 1CDR0009334 BD17-19]
C1009/10 C55 [access copy 1CDR0009338 BD21]
and these recordings were digitized by the British library sound Archive as part of the Traditional Music in England project sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Further details can be obtained at www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/traditional_music.html along with details of many others from other parts of the UK.
Versions 1 and 2 were originally published in Gardham, An East Riding Songster, Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts, 1982, pp11-12 with music score, and version 3 at p44 without music score.